Drama unfolds after Pulitzer snub of playwrights Commentary: Board ignores jurors' nominees in drama category.

April 13, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This year marks the 14th time in its 80-year history that the Pulitzer Prize for drama was not awarded. No original American play dealing with American life -- that's the wording of the criteria -- was deemed worthy of the Pulitzer's national cachet.

It happens every so often with the journalism awards. In 1993, for instance, no prize was given for editorial writing.

But in the arts and letters categories, where the works under consideration are themselves more subjective, the awards process is also more prone to complications. Ten times since 1918, there has been no award for fiction, the last as recently as 1977.

But 14 times for drama is the record.

What, are there no significant American plays out there? As playwright Craig Lucas said: "Any Pulitizer Prize adjudicator who didn't feel sufficiently awed by, and grateful for, 'One Flea Spare,' by Naomi Wallace, 'How I Learned to Drive,' by Paula Vogel or 'Golden Child' by David Henry Hwang we can no longer take them seriously."

Lucas, Obie-award-winning author of "Reckless" and "Prelude to Kiss," is a little bit right but mostly wrong, and the theater community, which has let fly at the drama jury with unusual vehemence, is wrong, too.

It's not the drama jury -- a panel of theater critics whose job is to keep tabs on the year's drama offerings -- that's to blame for 1997's blunt "No award." The jury sends its recommendations to the 14-member Pulitzer board, composed of senior editors, writers and publishers, and it's there that the drama award is ratified or rejected.

Three plays recommended

In fact, this year's drama jury, in its genteel way, is madder than hell, for it had no trouble finding three plays to recommend.

The mechanics of the drama prize process are as follows: Each year, the board picks a jury of five theater critics whose job is to survey and cull the field, then nominate three finalists to the board. The list of finalists goes to the board, and a chairman's report goes with it to explain the jury's choices. The board then has the option to accept the nominations and choose one for a winner; to reject them and come up with its own choice; or to refuse to issue the award at all.

In the journalism categories, the board is known for horse-trading, moving a candidate from one category to another to strengthen its chances. In arts and letters, it's more common to defer to the jury's expertise -- except in drama. After all, everyone's a critic.

There are problems with the drama process. Anyone can send the jury a script, including such advocates as playwrights' agents and Broadway producers. It's not uncommon to have 40 or more scripts to wade through, all but a handful of questionable merit.

Though journalism entries must come from the prior calendar year, submissions for drama can -- and do -- continue until March 1. Once when I was on the jury, we were in the midst of voting when a messenger from the Pulitzer office came to the restaurant and deposited late-arriving scripts on the table, as though the jurors were to read them then and there. We made a speedy executive decision not to.

Until the mid-'80s, the jury consisted of three critics, almost always from New York. After 1986, the board expanded the jury to five and tried to diversify its membership with critics more familiar with regional theater, where most new plays are generated.

But no matter how diverse and knowledgeable the jury, it can only recommend. The board rules. And though the award is for script, not production, the board prefers plays it can see on a stage in New York, right before it votes.

This year, the finalists were "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," by Alfred Uhry; "Pride's Crossing," by Tina Howe; and "Collected Stories," by Donald Margulies.

The jury that selected them was chaired by Jeremy Gerard, former drama critic of Variety, now a news editor at New York magazine. The other members were Jack Kroll, Newsweek; Christine Dolan, Miami Herald; Laurie Weiner, Los Angeles Times; and Clive Barnes, New York Daily News, filling out the term of the New York Times' Sunday critic, Vincent Canby, who withdrew for health reasons.

I can make a good guess as to the board's reasons for rejecting the finalists. I've neither seen nor read "Collected Stories," but it premiered at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., and none of the board saw it.

"Pride's Crossing," which premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, is based on the life of Gertrude Ederle, the American swimmer who was the first woman to swim alone across the English Channel, in 1926. Michael Phillips, theater critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, told me that playwright Howe had let it be known that "Pride's Crossing" was slated for a thorough rewrite before it opens at Lincoln Center next fall. She could have another chance at the prize next year.

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